IT WAS TWO o’clock in the morning when Genesis Owusu cut off his hair. “I couldn’t sleep, so I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. And that was the time. I just grabbed the scissors and cut off the locks I’ve had for the last seven years.” The act was somewhat symbolic. Owusu had just finished touring his critically acclaimed debut album Smiling With No Teeth, a wild ride that took him around Australia, to North America and across to Europe. “All of it—the rollout, the music, the tour—it was all done. And I was like, now is the perfect time.”
The act marked the end of a chapter, but it was also symbolic of a new beginning. A reality that every young musician with a successful first body of work must eventually face was coming for Owusu: the challenge of producing a follow-up. “I felt like I'd put all of my life experiences into that first album. And then we went through Covid and I did a bit of touring… I felt as if not enough life had been lived to create the second album,” says the 25-year-old musician. “So I thought maybe, instead of pulling straight from life experiences, I had to find another means of inspiration… another well to draw from.”
Then, a few days later, a character came to Owusu in a vision. “I just saw my bald head; I saw the red stripe; I saw a gown, like, almost a monk-style gown and I just saw a whole new character.” With the help of his girlfriend, the artist bleached a crimson stripe down the centre of his head. “I just needed to feel a bit freakier,” he says. “It just needed to feel a bit out of the ordinary. It’s like that old saying: it’s crazy to do the same things over and over while expecting different results. So I thought, if I wake up and look in the mirror and see something different, maybe that will make me think differently. It was kind of about jolting that process.”
And it did just that. Yet the haircut was just the beginning of a visual transformation that would take Genesis Owusu, whose real name is Kofi Owusu-Ansah, from Smiling With No Teeth into a bold new epoch that would, eventually, give birth to his second album, Struggler.
IT IS UNCHARACTERISTICALLY warm for July on the day of Genesis Owusu’s Esquire photoshoot. When I arrive, he is swaddled in layers of Zegna cashmere, pulling poses like a ’90s supermodel. He steps out of frame, and I ask if he’s hot. “Nah,” he says with a warm smile. “I’m cosy as.” As Owusu moves around in front of the camera—he’s currently performing the ‘roach movement’ inspired by the character at the centre of Struggler—I have the distinct impression I’m watching someone who is not merely a musician, but a world builder. An artist at the helm of his very own universe.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Owusu is a born storyteller. He moved from Ghana to Australia with his family when he was two. Growing up in Canberra, he was one of the only Black kids in a largely white community, and writing stories became a way to make sense of the otherness he felt. Around 2005, his older brother Kojo began rapping as Citizen Kay, and Genesis would often tag along to his gigs. The brothers released their first song together in 2012 when Owusu was just 14. After high school, he enrolled in a journalism degree—it was a way of pursuing his storytelling instincts, while keeping his parents happy. “Part of their decision to move was so me and my brother could get an education. They were kind of typical immigrant parents,” he explains.
But really, he just wanted to rap. Alongside his studies, Owusu was writing and releasing his own music, with a string of experimental hip-hop singles placing him on the radar of key Australian hip-hop players. One of those was former rapper and radio host Hau Lātūkefu, who won the first ever Best Urban Release Aria in 2004, as one half of the hip-hop duo Koolism.
“Genesis just had a certain energy about him,” Lātūkefu tells me. “He was a good rapper who had a different style to his peers. He wrote differently, performed differently, and just as importantly, he dressed differently.” When he met Owusu, Lātūkefu was in the process of launching his own record label; he was so taken by Owusu’s potential that he wanted to sign him as his first act. “He was still very early in his journey, but you could tell he was going to be something special. He has the ‘It’ factor.”
Those first singles laid the foundation for Owusu’s debut album, Smiling With No Teeth. A pastiche of influences and genres, it was sonically varied yet self-assured, veering away from his rap roots and into poppier territory. With the dexterity of an auteur yet the bright eyes of a prodigy, Owusu built the album around the central character of a ‘black dog’. It served as a metaphor for the racism he’s encountered as a man of colour moving in predominantly white spaces, but also the lingering depression such an experience leaves in its wake.
Smiling With No Teeth was met with a level of praise most young artists only dream of. At the 2021 Aria Awards, Owusu won four of the seven categories he was nominated for, including Album of the Year, becoming the first hip-hop artist to ever do so. He claimed the $30,000 Australian Music Prize and three AIR Awards that same year, while over in the States Stephen Colbert premiered Smiling With No Teeth on his late night show. Zane Lowe, one of the most influential music commentators in the world, called Owusu “dangerous”. Barack Obama included the track ‘Gold Chains’ in his end-of-year playlist, which, these days, is arguably more influential than the Billboard Hot 100.
Before long, artists from a plethora of genres were lining up to collaborate. In October 2021, Owusu featured in ‘Back Seat’, a dance track by Australian DJ Anna Lunoe, who also hosts her own Apple Music 1 radio show. “Genesis has power and spirit that is so instantly recognisable,” she writes from her home in Los Angeles “I don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s so obvious to me. His music goes beyond trend and time.”
Because of the pandemic, Owusu’s Smiling With No Teeth tour stopped and started a couple of times before he and his band were eventually able to take it to the world. It was a success, with global critics labelling the artist ‘one to watch’. Meanwhile, however, Owusu was grappling with the prospect of starting album number two. He admits it was a “confusing time”, and it wasn’t until he stopped searching for inspiration that the futility of the search itself dawned on him. It also provided him with a starting point.
“I was like, ‘what am I going to do? What is my purpose? And how do I make the purpose into a thing?’” he remembers. While wrestling with these big existential questions, Owusu began reading into the philosophy of absurdism, which led him to texts like Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. “Absurdism is like… it doesn’t even fucking matter,” he grins. “Looking for a purpose is so pointless in the universe we live in, where everything is so random and chaotic and things are beyond our control. It’s about accepting that maybe there’s no higher purpose or calling, and finding joy in that.”
But in the music business, having a solid premise is only part of the equation. The pressure to sell hangs over everything an artist does, and, as Owusu discovered, it’s often at its most intense following a successful breakout.
“As a person, I’m pretty quiet. I don’t really speak unless I have something to say. And being a musician is often contradictory to that—especially when it becomes a career, you always need to be finding things to say,” he says. “And then when you do, maybe it’s not marketable enough… not pop-friendly enough… maybe it won’t bring in as much revenue as it needs to—there’s all these little things to juggle that can feel like they taint what essentially started as an act of therapy.”
Owusu’s voice grows softer the more introspective he becomes. When I ask if, and how, he was able to make peace with these opposing forces, he leans into the couch we’re sitting on and lets out a contemplative sigh. “I just try to compromise as little as possible. So even though those external forces are always there, I knew this album wasn’t going to come out until I had something to say. The pressure is distracting, but eventually you just have to, I don’t know, squash it.”
THE DAY BEFORE this photoshoot is due to take place, we receive a call from Owusu’s team that gives our stylist a small heart attack (he’s fine). In keeping with the artist’s new image, they ask that he’s wearing sunglasses in every shot. In addition to the shaved head, bleached red stripe and black cape, bug-eyed shades have become a defining part of the look Owusu has crafted especially for this album. The glasses aren’t just an aesthetic choice—though they are insanely cool. Rather, they’re designed to evoke the image of a roach; the Metamorphosis-inspired character that runs through every track on Struggler.
“The story of the album is about a roach that’s running away from God—it’s just trying to survive and not get stomped on,” he says. “It’s kind of a metaphor for humanity, because when you think of it, we’ve survived all these things that should have crushed us—pandemics, bushfires, economic downfall—but we just keep living.” The glasses, he adds, were a way of channelling the character without wearing an actual roach costume. “And also, the eyes are the gateway to the soul. They bring a lot of humanness to someone.”
“I don’t really think of it like, ‘what kind of artist do I want to be?’... I just want to make you feel something different.”
Owusu transformed into the roach well before Struggler was announced; he released non-album singles ‘GTFO’ and ‘Get Inspired’ in character, and opened for two of the world’s biggest music acts. He accompanied Tame Impala on their Australian tour in late 2022 and earlier this year, American pop-punk icons Paramore asked Owusu to join them on the first leg of their North American tour. Typically, it’s the record labels that choose supporting artists for big bands, but in both of these instances, it was the bands that requested Owusu—Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker is a fan of his artistry, and it turns out Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams is too.
One of the more surreal moments of Owusu’s career occurred during Paramore’s Madison Square Garden concert in New York. Philadelphia-born rapper Lil Uzi Vert, who, in addition to being one of the biggest hip-hop acts in the world right now, is a raging Paramore stan, was also at the show. Towards the end of their set, Williams invited Owusu, Uzi and a bunch of the crew up on stage for a rambunctious rendition of ‘This Is Why’. By total coincidence, the outfit Lil Uzi Vert wore on stage at the California Rolling Loud festival in March was uncannily similar to the look Owusu has been wearing for the last year.
“We had a little moment as we were coming off stage,” chuckles Owusu. “I’m sure they had no idea who I was, but he was probably like”—Owusu widens his eyes for emphasis—“who is this guy in cosplay?”
To fully grasp Owusu’s genius, you really do need to see him play live. Comments left on his Instagram account by Paramore fans with no prior knowledge of his music attest to this. “I saw your show in Indy this past Monday and HOLY SHIT… I had never heard of you before, but you were absolutely one of the most entertaining people I’ve ever seen on stage,” wrote one affected fan. After seeing him play in Sydney, Zane Lowe approached Owusu and declared, “you are an artist!”
The show, the look, even the way Owusu sings—on Struggler, his voice shifts from booming and urgent on tracks like ‘Leaving the Light’ to a slow, sexy falsetto on ‘See Ya There’—it all works together to create a world around the music, and it’s all completely intentional. “When I make something I try to think of it as a whole package,” says Owusu. “I don’t really think of it like, ‘what kind of artist do I want to be?’ I just want to create new experiences constantly, and just figure out how to express myself in a clearer and clearer way. And I want to make you feel something different, even if it’s abrasive and uncomfortable.”
Ask anyone in the Australian music industry, and they’ll tell you: Owusu has what it takes to go global. “Genesis definitely has what it takes to be an international act. I mean, he already is, but he has the potential to be even bigger,” says Hau Lātūkefu, who believes that while his musical talent is fully appreciated, lyrically, he’s even more advanced than he’s given credit for. “As brash and as ambitious and as Black as he and his sound is, it’s still inviting enough for even the most straight-edged folks of mainstream society to want to get jiggy with it.”
But the question remains: will Struggler be the critical success Smiling With No Teeth was? Will its racier, rock-inspired sound resonate with fans of his radio-friendly funk-laden debut? In true absurdist fashion, Owusu is happy to let the world decide.
“I feel like whether people are ready or not… I don’t really concern myself with that. I just do what I do and when they’re ready they’ll catch up.”
Struggler is out August 18.
Photography: Georges Antoni
Styling: Grant Pearce
Grooming: Daren Borthwick